Actor Heath Ledger, left, with Lily Cole performs his final role in director Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. ((Lions Gate))

British director Terry Gilliam says he was ready to give up on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after actor Heath Ledger's death.

The film, a fantasy partly shot in Vancouver, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday to mixed reviews.

"The choice I made was to close the film down," Gilliam told reporters at the festival in the French resort town of Cannes.

"I couldn't see how we could finish it without Heath because we were in the middle of production," he added. "Fortunately, I was surrounded by really good people who insisted that I shouldn't be such a lazy bastard and I'd better go out and find a way of finishing the film for Heath. That's what we did."

Ledger was playing the role of a slick-tongued fundraiser for children's charities who is left for dead by Russian mobsters. He is picked up by a troupe of actors led by Doctor Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer, who has the power to open the doors to various imaginary worlds.

When Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose on Jan. 22, 2008, the film was only half made, Gilliam said.


British director Terry Gilliam, left, and American actor Verne Troyer were on the red carpet at Cannes for the premiere of the film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus on Friday. ((Joel Ryan/Associated Press))

After deciding to go ahead with the rest of the film, Gilliam recruited some A-list talent to play incarnations of Ledger's character during his trips to various fantasy worlds. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell took turns completing his role.

'An extraordinary thing'

"The real credit has got to go to Johnny, Colin and Jude, which was an extraordinary thing, to come in," Gilliam said. "They're all doing other films, they're involved in other projects, and they came to the rescue of this thing."

Ledger's spirit hung over the Cannes premiere, in part because he left such a large stamp on the role, Gilliam said.

"Heath was enjoying himself so much, and he was ad libbing a lot, which I don't normally allow … but Heath was just brilliant at it, and he got everybody else going," Gilliam said.

"Everybody was just energized by Heath. He was extraordinary. He was almost exhausting because he had so much energy."

Some critics found the film brilliant, but others were missing Ledger himself, with the Guardian dismissing this final performance as "sad."

The Hollywood Reporter was unsure how the film, which has yet to find a buyer, will play to general audiences.  

"The three stars that came to Gilliam's rescue also make amusing contributions, but it's hard not to wonder how much better the film would have been with a complete performance by the charismatic and adventurous Ledger," the Reporter said in its review.

With files from The Associated Press